When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Today I’ll be working with the gospel text. It’s about fear, anxiety, doubt, and the ultimate call to faith, all of which seem to be universal themes for the experiences of many today. Fear about the economy. Anxiety about just about everything. Doubt, at least for me, is reflexively activated, and usually when I have too much time on my hands. And the call to faith, which we feel sometimes at odds times and in odd places, reinforces this idea of a Christian lifestyle. I’m sure we’ve all heard this doubting-Thomas story before. It’s one of those go-to Christian stories, and because it’s one of those go-to Christian stories, it’s hard to hear it as news. But the ultimate question the text has been asking me is whether I can confidently and honestly do as Thomas does when he says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
My therapist’s favorite story to psychoanalyze begins in high school. My parents were rather secular, and there aren’t terribly many open and affirming congregations like Old First in northern Michigan. A friend brought me to her youth group, and I chose that church as my church. My pastor recommended that I see a “Christian” therapist for reparative therapy. Reparative therapy, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a therapy that’s designed to make gay people straight. It’s been denounced as ineffective and mentally and sexually harmful by most national psychiatric and social welfare organizations, but certain churches and family organizations swear by it, citing a single study published in 2001 as evidence that it works. It’s what Marcus Bachmann got in trouble for when Michelle was still running for the Republican nomination. My parents thought I was seeing a therapist to come to terms with my gayness and to address a friend’s suicide, whereas, in reality, my therapist was convincing me that I was unloved by God because I was not a “man of God.” My therapist was not only spiritually creepy, but often a little handsy. I’ll spare you the details, but I’m sad to say I thought his methods were merely unorthodox, so I kept seeing him. As it turns out, it’s not unusual for reparative therapists to be “ex-gays” themselves, self-repressing for years and years and then using their positions of pseudo-authority as opportunities for release. Following the meetings with my therapist, I would drive my minivan home and try to coerce God into making me straight. But to no avail.
Instead, as I tormented myself theologically, God told me to buck up and chill out. Life didn’t need to be as hard as I had been making it. But I tested God until well into college, and I haven’t learned yet how to buck up and chill out. I find it fascinating that I haven’t left the church completely. Honestly, though, I have disdain for the gays who have left. I feel like they’re giving up too easily. They, of course, could say that my nostalgia for the church is, in the same way, giving up too easily.
It’s not unusual to pass through a spiritual phase in which you bargain with God or pray for absurd things like parking spaces or for—you know—a brand new sexuality. Or to hold your faith hostage pending some resolution to a problem or situation. There’s something very On-the-Road and healthy about spiritual phases, or journeys. My favorite theologian and mentor James Alison once illustrated for me his conception of spiritual identities, but I think it works well for anything in which transition, growth, and evolution change us. At the beginning, you’re on the bank of a lake, just like everyone else. You look out at the water, and you see a swim platform right where the clear, predictable, sandy shallows start to become darker, colder, deeper, and full of seaweed. You swim to the platform, but it was harder than you thought it would be. So you rest there, drying off in the sun, until you’re ready to swim beyond it. And then you swim beyond it.
We all have stories in which we’ve tested God. It’s biblical, after all. Thomas does it. Jacob actually wrestles with God, or an angel, or whatever. Job does. Jonah does. It’s more human than not to wrestle with God. I’d be interested to hear from you about what you did—or maybe still do—to test God. But it’s a spirituality I’m happy to have abandoned for now. What this kind of spirituality exposes, I think, is more our self-doubt than our God-doubt. I’m happy to have realized that, in fact, God doesn’t work that way. How does God work? I don’t know, but not that way. We shouldn’t dull or smother our doubt with superstitious spiritualities. There are better spiritualities. Having faith is hard enough before adding to it exponentially-increasing disappointments from ever-failing God-tests. And we shouldn’t flatter ourselves into thinking our God-tests are justified or somehow especially conclusive. Because they’re not. And they never will be.
The text says that the disciples meet in the house and lock the doors “for fear of the Jews.” First of all, no, not “the Jews.” The “Jews” includes diverse sects and traditions, some of which couldn’t care less about the disciples. I’m always inclined to distrust the author of John, the evangelist. I don’t think they’re scared of the Jews. No, they’re scared of Christ’s resurrection. They’re not scared of “resurrection” itself because in chapter eleven they had seen Lazarus raised from the dead. They understand that resurrection lies well within God’s capacity. They’re afraid of Christ’s resurrection. It would mean that he had actually predicted the time of his resurrection, and that he really had been the Messiah all along. It would prove that something was actually at stake in the crucifixion. That Jesus wasn’t as crazy as they all had secretly thought. And it would mean they had just royally screwed up. Jesus had recruited them, asked them to keep watch at Gethsemane, but then they fell asleep. And now Jesus has come again to recommission them.
But Thomas, also called the Twin, wasn’t at the house when Jesus appeared the first time, and he doesn’t believe the stories the other disciples tell him. The others insist that Jesus was there! Just where Thomas is standing! They recount his commissions: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Thomas has to admit that that indeed does sound like Jesus, but he scoffs. Not because he doesn’t believe his friends, because on some level he does believe his friends. He just doesn’t want to believe his friends. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus was executed, shamefully murdered as a criminal and as the sacrifice of a violent, religiously-enthusiastic contagion. Jesus had been utterly passive. Thomas felt guilty, and he knew that he and his friends were complicit in the contagion when they failed even to attempt to neutralize it, and Thomas fears that God actually could be resurrected from such an execution. As Paul says, the cross is a scandal. But how could someone shamed by the crucifixion be a Messiah worthy of resurrection? How could one so powerless, so passively violated by our violence, be God? Thomas says he’ll believe when he sees the wounds for himself.
In the end, this story isn’t about Thomas at all. It’s about Christ. Christ knows what Thomas needs to believe. Thomas doesn’t need to see Christ’s wounds to believe Christ’s resurrection, but to believe Christ is the Messiah. Seeing his hands and side prove that Christ was a man and a God. My trouble is whether what was good enough for Thomas and the other disciples is good enough for us today. Thomas was Bronze Age. Thomas was illiterate and a teenager, but he wasn’t thick or stupid. Maybe just a little unsophisticated. Thomas was, in fact, the resident skeptic of the twelve.
I preached a sermon on Thursday morning for my preaching class final, and one of my best friends praised it for completely resisting the temptation of cynicism. It’s hard for me, a natural-born skeptic, to squelch my misgivings, theological or otherwise. But in the text, Christ never rebukes Thomas’s doubt, because it’s honest and it’s innocuous. That’s the difference between skepticism that is intended to dislocate and honest-to-goodness doubt. There’s never any judgment. Probably because doubt and belief aren’t mutually exclusive, and often the most enthusiastic believers, whose certainty can be socially and psychologically disconcerting, are those who doubt most of all. Because belief and certainty are most definitely not the same thing.
That said, the purpose of the text is not to overemphasize the legitimacy of doubt, but to encourage belief in Christ. In the coda, the final couplet, the evangelist writes: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The good news is that if Christ is the Messiah, we have what we need to believe, and it’s coming through the radical self-giving of Christ. No amount of doubt can smother that kind of grace.
Do you have what you need to believe? This past week, the infamous psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer confessed that his 2001 study supporting reparative therapy was probably wrong. He has officially rescinded his conclusion that “highly motivated” individuals may be able to change their sexual orientation, and now, the second Sunday of Easter, I can breathe a little easier. Discrediting institutionalized spiritual and sexual abuse is what I need in order to believe in Christ, but not necessarily to believe in the literal resurrection, which isn’t something I’ve reconciled either way. Rather, at the moment, I’m only able to say confidently that Christ has a unique place among our historical activists, philosophers, religious, and political leaders. But the metaphor of resurrection is important for me in the interim as I sort out what my Christology will be. Call me barbaric, or Jesuitical, but for me Christ is risen most gloriously when the bigots who make life hell for young gay people retreat to their sad pseudo-theological lairs, so people like me can refocus on other institutional justice problems. Christ will be risen on an April 24 seminary field-trip to DC to join supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal Occupy the Justice Department to demand that all political prisoners be released. Christ is risen when Michelle Obama and her exquisite under-bite raise awareness regarding veterans’ disproportionate unemployment. I can find Christ risen in many places, but most of the time it’s when justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
And I think we all understand Thomas’s doubt. I don’t think it’s unusual or bad or wrong to doubt. Believing that doubt kills faith is one of the most pernicious lies in the Christian tradition. As Justo Gonzales says, any God you can prove is an idol. Holding doubt and faith in tension is what drives Christians to embody their faith, which was Christ’s commission to the disciples in the text today. All that’s left for us is to hear the commission to forgive and to empower those who can to confess the first and most unambiguous confession that any disciple has left for us: Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father. Unto him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.